Thursday, January 31, 2019

Sunshine Days in Hotel Ballrooms

Tom Brady has been smiling a lot during his mandatory Super Bowl hype press conferences. That chip on his shoulder last week? Gone. Brady is next door to mellow, and frequently expresses the sentiment that it's delightful to be part of all of the Bowl experience, even the press conference part that anyone would find irksome.

"The Super Bowl is where you get tired of your own life story," Drew Bledsoe said 22 years ago. He was right, and that his only Bowl hype experience. This is Brady's ninth time through the stupid question gauntlet. He's never seemed happier at the chore.

Neither has Bill Belichick. Although about six subway stops short of mellow, the Patriots' coach has been downright human at the podium. He has cracked a few dry witticisms. Asked if he would write a book after retiring, the coach responded, "would you buy it?"

OK, not exactly a great joke, but still part of an overall improvement in Belichick's media deportment. He has answered football-related questions in detail, occasionally illuminating detail. He has allowed Rob Gronkowski to candidly describe the toll pro football takes on Gronk's body.

This is a notable  change from Belichick's MO at some other of his 12 Super experiences. I found him not merely terse, but almost dour after one of them he won, Super Bowl 38 against the Panthers. And to be fair, it's not fair to nag a coach for being a mite preoccupied the week before the NFL championship game. Life is pretty earnest and full of work and worry for them in those days.

So why the change? Whatever happened to the "nobody believes in us" bullshit we heard prior to the AFC championship game? Why are the Pats, especially their famously driven leaders, so comparatively outgoing and jolly as they prepare for the Rams?

Beats me, but that's sure not going to stop me from speculating. One obvious speculation is that the Patriots are more cheerful at this Super Bowl than at some others because they feel Super confident, that they saw the Chiefs game as their decisive challenge, and having won it --- barely -- they feel there's no other obstacle they can't handle.

Could be. But at Super Bowl 42, where an unbeaten Patriots team was a prohibitive favorite, the Pats by their own admission were tense and taut prior to kickoff, leading to a series of unsatisfactory practices. As we have seen through two decades now, the Patriots, who're almost always favorites, do not adapt well to the favorite's role. Indeed, they hate it. They want to be seen as scrappy underdogs, which is ridiculous, and one reason they and their fans are so unpopular west and south of Hartford.

Abandoning that posture is a startling change in franchise mindset. My personal guess as to why is that while experience doesn't win as many games as it gets credit for, it can breed wisdom, or at least knowledge. In their third consecutive Bowl, the Patriots (or Belichick, who does the deciding) seem to have decided that since it's more pleasant to be there than not, they might as well roll with that fact.
They're happy, and they don't care if you know it,

Were I a Ram, that attitude would worry me more, much more, than if the Pats had spent all week blatting about "respect." When dynastic champions accept themselves as such, they get tougher to beat.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Alternative History: Pointless but Still More Fun Than the Pro Bowl

Last night a friend e-mailed me a link to a video of Drew Bledsoe in the 2001 AFC championship game, where Bledsoe replaced an injured Tom Brady, throwing a touchdown pass in New England's 24-17 victory over the Steelers. It was the last time Bledsoe played a down in a Patriots uniform.

Ahh, but what if it wasn't? I covered that game, and afterwards Brady's ankle was wrapped in enough ice to handle every mint julep at the Kentucky Derby. I ended that day convinced he wouldn't be able to play in Super Bowl 36, which due to the schedule changes caused by 9/11, was only a week, not two weeks, away.

In the event, Brady proved a fast healer, and we all know the story from there. So for an idle off weekend speculation, let's change the Pats' tale of dynastic success. Let's imagine that on February 3, 2002, Brady's ankle was still roughly the same size and color as an ABA basketball, and that he could not play against the Rams. Bill Belichick's decision to start Brady was announced the previous Wednesday night, inconsiderately ruining my dinner plans. What if he had said, "Tom's hurt, so Drew starts"?

Since this is MY alternative timeline, let me make the following bold pronouncement. The Pats would've won the game, at the time considered a huge upset, anyway. They were the better team that evening in every aspect of football, especially the crucial aspect of violence. The Pats were the sluggers, the Rams the boxers, and while boxers occasionally win prizefights against sluggers, slugger football teams always, always beat any boxer they encounter.

There's one exception to that blanket statement. Oddly enough, it's quarterbacking. Brady did nothing in Super Bowl 36 Bledsoe couldn't have done unless you believe that Brady is supernaturally destined to win games and Bledsoe to lose them. Uf you do, please take your alternative timeline to some corner of the Internet where they argue about the endings of Marvel films, because you believe in comic book reality.

Truth is, of all the eight Super Bowls he has played, his first one remains the one in which Tom Brady did the least. He completed 16 of 27 passes for 145 yards and one touchdown. I daresay that if those are his stats come THIS February 3, the Pats will lose Super Bowl 53 and it might not be close.

Brady did not have a turnover in Super Bowl 36 and that really was his most important statistic, the prime directive he received from Belichick prior to the game. His job was to avoid error and let New England body punch its way to victory through defense and the running game. Only in New England's final drive, when the Rams' defenders were gassed and spitting cotton between plays, was Brady allowed to throw caution to the winds and just throw.

(Brady was voted MVP by the quarterback centric fans of America, an honor he did not deserve, which he said himself after the game. He still should four Super Bowl MVPs, however, since the one given to Deion Branch in Bowl 39 was rightfully his).

I believe Bledsoe could've executed that game plan. He did in the AFC title game, completing 10 of 21 passes for a TD and no turnovers. He managed a game the Pats won on special teams, Troy Brown turning in a punt return TD and part of a blocked field goal TD return. Bledsoe was nowhere near the quarterback Brady became, but he was anything but a stiff. Hey, Wally Pipp was a pretty good first baseman. Nobody remembers that, either.

So I say Bledsoe does just enough to set up Adam Vinatieri's winning field goal and New England's first NFL championship. There's a parade and everybody's happy. Well, everybody except Belichick, who's now both on top of the world and a coach with an unpleasant personnel decision. He's got a QB who's a Super Bowl hero and now he's got to get rid of him.

Much of the history of the Belichick era Pats remains classified by him, but this much we know. Brady replaced Bledsoe when Drew was injured after two games of the 2001 season. After 10 games, Belichick announced Brady would remain the starter for the rest of the year, because, as assistant coach Charlie Weis explained several seasons later, "it was on the if not broke don't fix it concept."

This is speculation on which I'd bet money. By the time the Pats were midway through the six game win streak with which they finished the regular season, Belichick had decided Brady was his guy for keeps. And that meant Bledsoe would have to go as soon as was possible. This was the opposite of the Eagles' current situation with Carson Wentz and Nick Foles. The former backup was going to be the man. The high priced veteran made too much money to ride the pine, and as we have subsequently seen, Belichick wants backup QBs who NOBODY thinks should the starter.

To think Belichick would change his mind on such a crucial decision because of the outcome of one game, even a Super Bowl, is to ignore everything we know about him. The only difference in my timeline for the 2002 offseason from what really happened is that with a Super Bowl win, Bledsoe would've drawn a higher price when the Pats traded him (and he brought a first round draft choice as it was).

And after that, what happens to the protagonists of my little fantasy? I suppose my imagination only goes so far, for try as I might, I can't think of any post Super Bowl 36 timeline for Brady, Bledsoe, Belichick and the Patriots than what actually has happened and is still happening. Brady wasn't going to change because he missed one game. He still would have been the fanatically competitive guy wholly devoted to self-improvement on the football field as he is now. Belichick wouldn't have changed, either. He'd still keep on drawing up the game plans and making the personnel moves which  have made New England the NFL's most historic success. Perhaps Bledsoe the Super Bowl winner would've done a little better post-New England than he actually did, but there's a limit to how much redemption helps a man when he's on the Bills.

One thing would've been different, guaranteed. The howling of and arguments between New England fans and media after Bledsoe was traded would've been loud and long if Drew had been the winning QB in that long ago Super Bowl. I believe I would have contributed my share of the noise, although what I would've thought I cannot say. But "controversy" would have been the Pats' constant companion in the 2002 season. That season, lest we forget, is the only one of Brady's career where he started every game and New England didn't make the playoffs, finishing 9-7. Brady did lead the league in touchdown passes, but he wouldn't have the Super win halo to protect him from the inevitable cries of "he's no Bledsoe."

The brouhaha, while good for the likes of Herald columnists, wouldn't have bothered Tom much. He's always known how good he can be. It's why he works so hard to get and stay there. It's been a reachable goal, not pie in the sky.

Needless to say, the "controversy" would have bothered Belichick even less. One of the coach's greatest strengths is that if you cannot help him win football games, he truly does not give a shit what you think. About anything, from quarterbacks to US trade policy. Is that healthy self-confidence, twisted self-containment, or both? I've never figured that one out. Maybe no one has.

So at fantasy's end, we're left with a past that looks about like the one we had, except Drew Bledsoe's a little happier, which is nice, and the Patriots' dynasty would have had a little more drama in its early years, which would be harmless and probably forgotten by now, especially by the folks who've howled the loudest about dumping Bledsoe.

Not much of a fantasy, you say. Can't be helped. When historical fiction strays too far from history, it tends to suck.

Besides, history says the Pats have played in eight going on nine Super Bowls starting with 36, and all but one of them came down to the last minute of the game. Four of 'em came down to the last play. That ought to be enough drama for anyone.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

It's a Simple Game, Cont.

       In two playoff games, the New England Patriots have scored 79 points. Why?

BECAUSE (See below)

     In those two games the Patriots have rushed for 331 yards, or 165 yards a game.

     In those two games, Tom Brady has attempted 90 passes and was never sacked.

     In short, the Pats' offensive line is kicking ass and taking names at an historic level. If they continue to do so in Super Bowl 53, New England will win it, probably reasonably easily (10 points or more). If the firm of Donald and Suh intervenes on behalf of the Rams and make the line of scrimmage an even fight, the issue will be in doubt.

     There. You have have been freed up to otherwise enjoy the time you'd spend absorbing Super Bowl hype. Journalism, even unpaid journalism, is all about service.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The First Law of Football Means More Than All the Rest

In the summer of 1987, the rookie NFL beat reporter had his first training camp interview with an assistant coach, Dante Scarnecchia of the Patriots. At its end, the reporter admitted to some confusion about what seemed the endless complexity of NFL tactics and the jargon used to describe them.

"Relax," Scarnecchia told the rookie. "Football's a simple game, really."

In the winter of 2019, the rookie hack is long retired, sitting here writing a blog post, and Scarnecchia is still employed in the NFL as the Patriots' offensive line coach, implementing his correct theory of his sport, which he only half revealed that long ago July day. It would be more accurate to say football is a series of complex means of accomplishing the simplest possible objective -- the dominance of other people through physical force. When push comes to shove, if team A's pushers beat Team B's shovers, Team A will invariably win. The greater the dominance, the easier the win.

The quarterback is the most important single player on an NFL team, but the guys with no necks, the offensive and defensive lines, are the most important units, and their role is more vital than his. The greatest QB of his time cannot do much if the pass rush has him pulling grass out of his helmet all game long (see, Tom Brady and Super Bowl 42). A mediocre quarterback can become a champion if either his pushers or shovers play at the highest possible level (see, Trent Dilfer and Super Bowl 35).

Much has been made of how the four highest-scoring NFL teams in the regular season all made their conference title games. But to me, the most significant stat of the divisional round was supplied by Amy Trask of CBS Sports. The four winners all had ridiculous time of possession advantages, ranging from a low of "only" 13 minutes for the Rams over the Cowboys (Rams ran for 273 yards) to a 20 minute advantage for the Chiefs over the Colts. The Pats had a 17 minute ToP advantage over the Chargers. You may recall New England didn't have to punt until late in the second quarter. ?Had the game not been over by halftime, that 17 minute advantage could have been far longer.

Many a talking head has opined that time of possession is a meaningless statistic. It is true that one big play can negate the effect of 10 smaller ones. All stats, however, convey some fact. A time of possession advantage of a quarter or more conveys the fact your offensive line is kicking serious ass.

Scarnecchia's charges on the offensive line were beyond dominant last Sunday against the Chargers, tossing LA defenders around with abandon on running plays, turning the Charger pass rush into a rumor. Brady literally didn't get his hair mussed in the game. Given such a splendid opportunity to display his unsurpassable skills, he enjoyed them to the fullest.

Some of the commentators and analysts who look at too much game tape for a living have raved about the blocking schemes the Pats used on the run last Sunday. That's a significant part of pushing, the ultraviolet choreography that allows blockers to overmatch their foes at crucial points of collision.    But somebody has to teach the moves to men who must make counterintuitive steps AWAY from the nearest raging behemoth on the line to get to the proper place. In that regard, Scar is football's Bob Fosse.

There's never been a lifer assistant coach inducted in the Hall of Fame and doubtless never will be, but if it ever happens, Scarnecchia should be the first. All they'd have to put on his plaque is this. Here's a guy Bill Belichick went and asked for help (as happened when Scar came out of retirement in 2016).

Football gets overanalyzed because each game has a jillion moving parts, and each of them has some factor in its outcome. Needless to say, the Brady vs. Patrick Mahomes quarterback matchup will receive 10,000 words of pregame hype for every word about blocking. I prefer to think of that matchup in this format. Each man has been great. Whose offensive line will permit him to be greatest Sunday evening?

If the Pats blockers dominate as they did last Sunday and the Chiefs' blockers cannot, New England will win, and vice versa. The rest is filler.

Ah, but what if both of 'em are as good as they were last weekend? In that case, my prediction is bet the over.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

A Blocking Cold Front Does Not Apply to the Jet Sweep

Channel 4, the CBS affiliate here in Boston that doubles as state media of Bob Kraft's Patriot empire, spent the first five minutes of its 7:30 a.m. broadcast talking about how cold it was at Gillette Stadium and how this meant the Chargers had no chance this afternoon.

In a sin against meteorology, one reporter noted it was four degrees at the stadium and cited Tom Brady's extraordinary success in games played at that temperature or below. That even on the coldest days it tends to warm up after sunrise was not mentioned. In the event, it's supposed to be in the low 20s with a noticeable but not strong breeze by kickoff.

That's cold. That'll make it uncomfortable for the 60,000 fans who'll sit through three hours plus of the game. But it won't affect its outcome the slightest little bit. It wouldn't affect the outcome if the Pats' opponent was the Lagos and not Los Angeles Chargers.

Did you know that pro football teams wear clothing? All kinds of different clothing depending on what best suits the weather? That coping with weather is one of the zillion different things coaching staffs obsess about all year-round? You probably do know all that. Bill Belichick does. The thermometer he puts outside the visiting locker room before games in the cold isn't some masterful mind game, it's just Bill playing to his image as the all-seeing, all-knowing evil genius, an image that does far more to inspire his own players than it does to dispirit the enemy.

There are weather factors that affect football games. In descending order of importance, they are wind, excessive heat, ice, snow, and heavy rain. Extreme cold falls into the category of "others receiving votes." Non-extreme cold has no impact whatsoever.

Do the Patriots have an astonishing home record in the cold, especially in the playoffs? Yes. Do the Patriots have an astonishing home record when it's nice out, including in the playoffs? Also yes. All teams do better at home, especially in the playoffs. The Pats win a lot of games in January because they win a lot of games in all the other months of the season, the reason you get home field advantage after the New Year.

Now, the reason Boston sports media (Channel Four has hardly been the lone offender this week) emphasize New England's lousy January weather is obvious -- their audience, Pats fans all, like reassurance that factors beyond the mere playing of the game make their heroes' triumph a certainty. This always seems weird to me. Gang, you're rooting for the greatest dynasty in NFL history, one whose success now spans two decades. Isn't that enough reassurance for you?

As it happens, I believe the Patriots WILL win this afternoon. But I didn't need to check the Weather Channel before I came to that conclusion. I picked the Pats for two reasons unrelated to temperature, humidity or wind direction.

Good teams usually win at home. The Pats haven't been an all-conquering juggernaut this season, but they're still a plenty good team, more than good enough for a significant home field advantage.

The second reason I fancy New England's chances is simpler still. I pick the Pats to win because they usually do. In the course of the 21st century, this has proven a sound theory, whether it's cold, rainy, windy or a pleasant fall afternoon. For that matter, it's the same reason I picked them to win on Opening Day. Which they did.